The Peach Bowl Drove ‘Em Mad In Atlanta
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
If you’ve been watching the History Channel’s “Madhouse” series about short track racing at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston Salem, N.C., and wonder if all the buzz about an in-town short track has been contrived for the cameras, don’t bet the grocery money on it.
A little history lesson from down the road in Atlanta would show that a tiny short track in a metropolitan town can indeed create the kind of excitement that’s being portrayed on “Madhouse.”
In Atlanta’s case, the track was called the Peach Bowl. It was a flat quarter-mile oval on the north side of town. It opened in 1949 and ran until the early 1970s, when the property was acquired by the city for a transportation garage.
There are numerous parallels with Bowman Gray, the most noteworthy being that back in the day, any driver who was anybody in NASCAR raced there at one time or another.
The Peach Bowl’s alumni roster reads like a Who’s Who of early stock car racing. Red Byron, the first champion of the circuit now known as Sprint Cup, raced there in a Midget early on. One of the Peach Bowl’s most dominating drivers, Jack Smith, went on to win 21 Cup races and earn a spot in the Stock Car Hall of Fame at Darlington. Rex White, the 1960 Cup champion, was a Peach Bowl veteran as were Gober Sosebee and Roscoe Thompson, two early NASCAR stars. In later years, Bobby and Donnie Allison were among the Cup stars who raced at the Peach Bowl.
NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. promoted races there in the early 1950s, and it was at his suggestion that the track was converted from dirt to asphalt.
The Peach Bowl also had its share of amateur drivers, who became crowd favorites and helped fill the grandstands every week.
Few amateurs pleased the crowd more than Jack Jackson, who for the past 21 years has organized a Peach Bowl Reunion.
The most recent, last Sunday, drew more than 200 drivers, mechanics, family members and fans. The success of the reunion shows that the little track and the relationships it fostered still have a big place in the hearts of its participants.
“I don’t have to call people to get them to come,” Jackson said. “They come because they want to be here.”
Just like in the days when the Peach Bowl was running, the reunion draws both professional racers and amateurs.
White, the 28-time Cup winner, recalled leading 300 laps of a 400-lap NASCAR race at the Peach Bowl only to burn out a right front wheel bearing.
Harvey Jones, the legendary racing mechanic from Atlanta, shared tales of his days on the early NASCAR circuit as well as the nights he prepared cars at the Peach Bowl.
Jackson said the mixture of pros and Saturday night heroes was a big part of the magic of the speedway, as was the leadership of its long-time promoter Roy Shoemaker.
“Roy was the best promoter ever,” Jackson said. “I would have never gotten to race if he hadn’t started the amateur class. I couldn’t compete against guys like Jack Smith,”
But through racing at the same track, and through the long-running reunion, Jackson and other amateurs have gotten to know the NASCAR greats on a one-on-one basis.
Mike Bell, the leading racing historian in the Atlanta area, said Shoemaker left another legacy that’s often overlooked, even in a city known for its role in racial integration.
In the early 1960s, with no outside pressure and before the civil rights movement really got going, Shoemaker integrated the track, pushing the old “White” and “Colored” grandstands together and making them one. He opened the competition to anyone regardless of color, and advertised his races in the city’s black newspaper, The Atlanta Daily World.
“He did all that on his own,” Bell said.
And nearly 40 years after he promoted his last race, Shoemaker’s legacy is still being celebrated. And the everyday people he helped turn into local folk heroes still get to relive the thrills of victory, every last Sunday in January.
It’s a history story any channel ought to want to tell.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment